When I was in Paris, I met with Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and young mother from the Marshall Islands. Kathy told stories of king tides breaking through her coral island’s seawalls, with water quietly rising into her sleeping cousin’s bedroom, before a huge a wave came and knocked her house over. (If her cousin’s mother hadn’t woken her, she would’ve went with it.)
I also met with Esau Sinook, an 18 year Iñupiat Native American who lives on a barrier island called Shishmaref off the northwest coast of Alaska, which is losing 3–4 meters of land a year, also with houses falling into the sea.
"There is an incredibly powerful symbol right now in Europe, which is the boat. This is in the newspapers all the time. We know what that means. It means someone, in the poetry of it, putting everything they have into a small container, and setting off, unsure of where we’re going." —Kevin BucklandI also met Zara Pardiwalla, of the Seychelles, whose island home in the Indian Ocean is facing saltier soil as well as bleached corals, meaning fishermen have to sail further and further out to find better catch.
Here’s the rub: We don’t know what to call these people. There is no label for Kathy or Esau or Zara on the international stage.
One of the most contested parts of the negotiations in Paris centered around what to do with the climate displaced. The U.S. took compensations off the table before the talks even started, but even in the draft-before-the-final-draft there was mention of forming a “climate displacement facility” — some entity that could help the folks who are staring out at Island-ruining waves. That got cut too.
What made it into the Paris agreement is a pledge to "address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change" with a report back penciled for next year’s summit in Morocco.
While this pledge is as watered down as you can get — it also represents a lifeline. To understand how to seize it, it’s crucial to understand why it took us so long to get here.
Erica Bower, an expert on "Loss and Damage" with the advocacy group Sustain US, told me that there’s "no universal word to describe what it means to be forced to flee from your home." And as a result, she said, "there have been so many debates in the last decade about definitions that it’s stalled progress."
"Because people have been so fixated on having the right term, they don’t actually act, they don’t actually create the infrastructures that are needed to support these populations."
Some people want to use the phrase "climate migrants" while others want to use "climate refugees," and yet others want to use "disaster displaced person."
While "climate refugee" has the most punch to it, it’s riddled with problems. As Bower explained it, one of that those problems is that the phrase "climate refugee" implies sole causality, when often climate change is an exacerbating force that worsens economic and political drivers (think: the Syrian refugee/war crisis and the 4 year record drought that preceded it).
Another major problem with the term "climate refugee" is it removes agency. According to Bower, "climate refugee" paints someone as a victim whereas people in Kiribati want to be described as "climate warriors" — as people who have tremendous resilience and who will fight to stay in their country as long as they possibly can.
Without a name, it’s been nearly impossible to rally for the world’s first climate lost — the people who are fleeing a planet that’s gotten a lot tougher to live on. Kathy, Esau, and Zara still have homes, but since 2008, at least 22.5 million people were displaced each year because of sudden extreme weather events — floods, typhoons, cyclones, and the like. That number is over double what it was in the 70s, and is a tenth of the 200 million climate-pushed migrants expected by 2050.
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So, as we find footing after Paris, the question is: How do we find footing for the people who can’t go home anymore?
The answer, I believe, lies somewhere at the juncture of an honest reckoning of loss, and a more nuanced struggle for justice.
As a movement, we’ve been stuck with the idea that we can fully and completely stop climate change. The waves of climate displaced—those we struggle to properly categorize or name—represent to at least some degree our failure as a movement to date. It’s a failure we need to acknowledge, but more so it means that as we fight for the death knell of fossil fuels, we’ve now got to include justice for the survivors of a broken world for whom the renewable energy transition will simply come too late.
We saw the start of this evolution in Paris where the final "D12" action included laying out long red canvas banners in the cobbled streets of Paris.
The red lines action began at the "tomb of the unknown soldier," where an eternal flame burns. People paid respect for climate change’s victims — both past and future — by dropping red tulips on those long banners.
The end of Paris showed a reckoning of human losses, an evolution from the naivete of saving the world, to trying to survive this one as best we can. While this work will include seeing through "the beginning of the end of fossil fuels," it now must also evolve into a global fight for the survivors — for the displaced.
There is one other factor that can help us seize the Paris lifeline. As we’ve been stuck with clunky vocabulary, a workaround may exist among symbols.
Kevin Buckland, 350.org Arts Ambassador, described how symbols can act as containers for the losses and rallying cries we can’t yet name.
Kevin told me about a new symbol that’s been taking shape. "I think there is an incredibly powerful symbol right now in Europe, which is the boat," Buckland said. "This is in the newspapers all the time. We know what that means. It means someone, in the poetry of it, putting everything they have into a small container, and setting off, unsure of where we’re going."
New symbols that show humans in the cross-hairs, like the boat, can maybe help us break the decade-long logjam to needing the right words, and incite the loud movement that is actually what we truly need to help the world’s first climate homeless.
As it stands, one of the oldest symbols of the climate fight, the polar bear, seems like it may have run its course.
At the end of our interview, Kathy, the Marshall Islands poet, told me:
"So people whose islands might be drowning, is that symbol not strong enough? Because polar bears are cute, you care more about them?"